The Sentencing Bill, introduced in November 2023, proposes reforms to sentencing for certain offences. Its primary aim is said to be the protection of victims of violent offences.
JUSTICE welcomes certain aspects of the legislation:
- The introduction of a presumption against immediate custodial sentences of 12 months or lessaligns with research highlighting the counterproductivity of these sentences. Evidence shows that such sentences hamper individuals’ community ties, impede their engagement with rehabilitative programmes, and are especially concerning given the ongoing overcrowding of England and Wales’ prisons.
- The extension of home detention curfew to individuals serving sentences of four years or more, and to adults serving special and extended sentences allows for the earlier release of individuals who do not pose public safety concerns. This measure supports their ongoing rehabilitation and reintegration into communities.
However, JUSTICE’s briefing raises the following concerns:
- The Bill undermines judicial independence. Constitutionally, Parliament is charged with setting maximum sentences, while the courts are tasked with determining appropriate sentences in individual cases based on their specific facts. Imposing mandatory whole life orders by legislation challenges judicial competence and independence.
- The effectiveness of whole life orders is questionable. There is insufficient evidence to support the need for more whole life orders. Out of 99 murder sentences referred to the Attorney General under the unduly lenient sentence scheme in 2023, only five were referred to the Court of Appeal, and three remain under review. Furthermore, thus far, none of the referrals to the Court of Appeal have been successful. This evidence indicates that the Crown Courts have generally not failed to impose whole life orders whenever necessary.
- The expansion of the use of whole life orders may cause unintended suffering for the families of murder victims. Mandatory whole life orders may discourage more suspects from entering guilty pleas and co-operating with the authorities. Consequently, more victims’ families may have to endure prolonged trials or remain left in the dark as to the fate of their loved ones.
- The increased dependence on whole life orders may also unduly punish prisoners. Prisoners facing indeterminate sentences are more likely to feel hopeless and less likely to engage in rehabilitative or other pro-social activities. Moreover, they are more likely to attempt suicide or self-harm. This outcome should not be favoured in a humane society. It also bears mentioning that prisoners who receive lengthy sentences at an earlier age are more likely to mature and better understand the impact of their offending as time goes on, such that they may be capable of leading different lives if released. However, a whole life order would not allow them to do so – nor are such sentences likely to deter others from offending.
- The exclusion of individuals who commit certain offences from eligibility for home detention curfew is flawed for three main reasons. First, it adds unnecessary complexity to sentencing, creating challenges for all actors within the criminal justice system. Secondly, existing sentencing guidelines, which are shaped around the current status quo, will continue to apply unless and until revised. This means that ultimately, individuals sentenced after the relevant provisions come into force will serve longer in custody than those sentenced earlier, creating an unfair discrepancy. Finally, this measure will exacerbate prison overcrowding, putting additional strain on the provision of rehabilitative activities.
House of Commons Second Reading (December 2023)
Read our briefing here.